The Max Headroom Incident

Captain Midnight

The jamming of television signals in the US has always been a contentious one and for good reason. On one side of the coin there is the network operator who has spent millions of dollars to build the network and on the other side of the coin, you have the consumers who are often charged absorbent fees, taxes and subscriptions on top of the use of the normal satellite fees.

The Max Headroom signal hijacking occurred on the night of November 22, 1987, when the television signals of two stations in Chicago, Illinois, were hijacked, briefly sending a pirate broadcast of an unidentified person wearing a Max Headroom mask and costume to thousands of home viewers.

The first incident took place during the sports segment of independent TV station WGN-TV’s 9:00 pm newscast. Like the later signal intrusion, it featured a person wearing a mask swaying erratically in front of a swiveling corrugated metal panel, apparently meant to resemble Max Headroom’s animated geometric background. Unlike the later intrusion, the only sound was a loud buzz. This interruption went on for almost 17 seconds before engineers at WGN were able to regain control of their broadcast tower.

The second incident occurred about two hours later during PBS member station WTTW’s broadcast of the Doctor Who serial Horror of Fang Rock. With nobody on duty at the affected tower, this signal takeover was more sustained, and the masked figure could be heard making reference to the real Max Headroom’s advertisements for New Coke, the animated TV series Clutch Cargo, WGN sportscaster Chuck Swirsky, “Greatest World Newspaper nerds,” and other seemingly unrelated topics. The video concluded with the masked figure’s bare buttocks being spanked by a woman with a flyswatter while yelling “They’re coming to get me!,” with the woman responding “Bend over, bitch!” as the figure was crying and screaming. At that point, the hijackers ended the pirate transmission, and normal programming resumed after a total interruption of about 90 seconds.

A criminal investigation conducted by the Federal Communications Commission in the immediate aftermath of the intrusion could not find the people responsible, and despite many unofficial inquiries and much speculation over the ensuing decades, the culprits have yet to be positively identified.

The first intrusion took place at 9:14 pm during the sports segment of WGN-TV’s The Nine O’Clock News. Home viewers’ screens went black for about fifteen seconds, before footage of a person wearing a Max Headroom mask and sunglasses is displayed. The individual rocks erratically in front of a rotating corrugated metal panel that mimicked the real Max Headroom’s geometric background effect accompanied by a staticky and garbled buzzing sound. The entire intrusion lasted for about 20 seconds and was cut off when engineers at WGN changed the frequency of the signal linking the broadcast studio to the station’s transmitter atop the John Hancock Center.

Upon returning to the airwaves, WGN sports anchor Dan Roan commented, “Well, if you’re wondering what’s happened, so am I,” and joked that the computer running the news “took off and went wild.” Roan then proceeded to restart his report of the day’s Chicago Bears game, which had been interrupted by the intrusion.

That same night, at about 11:20 pm, the signal of local PBS station WTTW was interrupted during an airing of the Doctor Who serial Horror of Fang Rock. The culprit was the same Max Headroom impersonator, this time speaking with distorted audio.

The masked figure made a comment about “nerds,” called WGN sportscaster Chuck Swirsky a “frickin’ liberal,” held up a can of Pepsi while saying “Catch the wave,” and held up a middle finger inside what appeared to be a hollowed-out dildo. The figure then ran through a series of quick comments and song snippets interspersed with excited noises and exclamations. “Max” sang the phrase “Your love is fading;” hummed part of the theme song to the 1959 animated series Clutch Cargo and said, “I still see the X!”  He also feigned defecation and explained that he had “made a giant masterpiece for all the Greatest World Newspaper nerds,” and discussed sharing a pair of dirty gloves with his brother. After a crude video edit, the person had moved mostly off screen to the left with his partially exposed buttocks visible from the side, with a female figure wearing a French maid costume and what appears to be a mask appearing on the right edge of the frame. The Max Headroom mask was briefly held in view while the voice cried out, “Oh no, they’re coming to get me! Ah, make it stop!” and the female figure began spanking “Max” with a flyswatter. The image faded briefly into static, and then viewers were returned to the Doctor Who broadcast after a total interruption of about 90 seconds.

Technicians at WTTW’s studios could not counteract the signal takeover because there were no engineers on duty at that hour at the Sears Tower, where the station’s broadcast tower was located. According to station spokesman Anders Yocom, technicians monitoring the transmission from WTTW headquarters “attempted to take corrective measures, but couldn’t.” Air director Paul Rizzo recalled that “as the content got weirder we got increasingly stressed out about our inability to do anything about it.” The pirate broadcast ended when the hijackers unilaterally ended their transmission. “By the time our people began looking into what was going on, it was over,” said Yocom. WTTW received numerous phone calls from viewers who wondered what had occurred.

The broadcast intrusion was achieved by sending a more powerful microwave transmission to the stations’ broadcast towers than the stations were sending themselves, which was a difficult task in 1987 but was possible before American television stations switched from analog to digital signals in 2009. Experts have said that the stunt required extensive technical expertise and a significant amount of transmitting power, and that the pirate broadcast likely originated from somewhere in the line of sight of both stations’ broadcast towers, which were atop two tall buildings in downtown Chicago.

No one has ever claimed responsibility for the stunt. Speculation about the identities of “Max” and his co-conspirators has centered on the theories that the prank was either an inside job by a disgruntled employee of WGN or was carried out by members of Chicago’s underground hacker community. However, despite an official law enforcement investigation in the immediate aftermath of the incident and many unofficial investigations, inquiries, and online speculation in the ensuing decades, the identities and motives of the hijackers remain a mystery.

Soon after the intrusion, an FCC official was quoted in news reporting that the perpetrators faced a maximum fine of $10,000 and up to a year in prison. However, the five-year statute of limitations was surpassed in 1992, so the persons responsible for the intrusion would no longer face criminal punishment should their identities be revealed.

Though the incident only briefly caught the attention of the general public, it has been overtly or subtly referenced in a variety of media over the ensuing decades, with Motherboard claiming that it has been an influential “cyberpunk hacking trope.”

The first reference came soon after the initial events when WMAQ-TV, another Chicago TV station, humorously inserted clips of the hijacking into a newscast during Mark Giangreco’s sports highlights.” A lot of people thought it was real – the pirate cutting into our broadcast. We got all kinds of calls about it,” said Giangreco.

On April 27, 1986, American electrical engineer and business owner John R. MacDougall (using the pseudonym “Captain Midnight”) jammed the Home Box Office (HBO) satellite signal on Galaxy 1 during a showing of the film The Falcon and the Snowman. The message, broadcast for four and a half minutes, was seen by the eastern half of the United States (accounting for more than half of HBO’s 14.6 million subscribers at the time) protesting HBO’s rates for satellite dish owners, which he considered too expensive. MacDougall was working at his second job as an operations engineer at the Central Florida Teleport uplink station in Ocala, Florida, and vied with a technician at HBO’s communications center in Hauppauge, New York, for control of the transmission. The technician attempted to increase uplink power but gave up because of the risk of damaging the satellite. MacDougall eventually abandoned his control of the satellite.

Although the intrusion was a minor annoyance to viewers, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), with assistance from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), investigated the jamming. After the FCC identified the transmitters and stations equipped with the specific character generator evidently used during the broadcast signal intrusion, MacDougall surrendered to the authorities, after which he was served with a subpoena due to a tourist having overheard him discussing the incident on a payphone off Interstate 75. Under an agreement with the prosecutor, he plea bargained and was sanctioned with a $5,000 fine, one-year unsupervised probation, and a one-year suspension of his amateur radio license. The jamming received much attention in the U.S., with one executive dubbing the intrusion an act of “video terrorism.”  As a consequence of the incident, the United States Congress passed the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 (18 U.S.C. § 1367), making satellite hijacking a felony. The Automatic Transmitter Identification System was also developed in response to this incident.

Beginning in the late 1920’s, when the first experimental transmissions began, broadcast television was delivered for free over local frequencies in the United States. When the industry began charging viewers for access to premium services via cable, free broadcasts continued. Starting in the 1970’s, a small community of satellite television enthusiasts shared the technology and knowledge of how to construct satellite dishes, as well as how to access pay television from the airwaves for free. This was not illegal at the time, and restaurant and hotel chains made use of this technology to distribute programming to guests and patrons without charge.

In the mid-1980’s, controversy erupted in the cable programming world as American media companies that owned pay television channels began scrambling their programming and charging fees to home satellite dish owners who accessed the same satellite signals that cable operators received. Many satellite dish owners faced the prospect of having to purchase descrambling equipment at a cost of hundreds of dollars, as well as having to pay monthly or annual subscription fees to cable programming providers. Fees for home dish owners were often higher than fees paid by cable subscribers, despite dish owners being responsible for acquiring and servicing their own equipment.

When Home Box Office (HBO) began scrambling its signal on a 24-hour basis on January 15, 1986, it offered subscriptions to home dish owners for $12.95 per month, which was either equal to or slightly higher than what cable subscribers paid. HBO also advised viewers that purchasing a descrambler for $395 along with the monthly fee would allow them to continue watching HBO. Several satellite dish dealers across the US closed their stores as a result of a reduction in dish sales, caused by the rise in signal scrambling. Dish owners began protests over keeping free access to broadcasts. One such protest was by members of the Satellite Television Industry Association, who converged on Washington, D.C., in March of 1986 to urge the United States Congress to protect access to satellite transmissions.

John R. MacDougall was born in Elmhurst, Illinois, a western suburb of Chicago. He is the youngest of five children to building contractor Robert MacDougall and his wife Thelma, a homemaker. Shortly after his father’s retirement in 1970, the family moved to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where MacDougall was educated at American Heritage School. Having spent his childhood years tinkering with cars and CB radios, MacDougall spent two years of studying in a management engineering program at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. He eventually abandoned his studies and found employment installing satellite dishes in Ocala.

In 1983, MacDougall opened the satellite dealership MacDougall Electronics in Ocala. The company initially turned a healthy profit, but following the scrambling of HBO’s signal on January 15, 1986, its turnover declined. Consequently, MacDougall reduced his expenses where possible and in the same month was offered a part-time job at the Central Florida Teleport uplink station (which uplinked services to satellites) as an operations engineer to help him pay his bills.[10] As he was not receiving any customers, MacDougall pulled all company advertising and saved money by switching off his air conditioning. He became increasingly reclusive during this period, watching television and reading magazines. MacDougall later said of the experience: “I have been watching the great American dream slip from my grasp.”

MacDougall wrote protest letters to legislators, and spent a large amount of money to raise awareness about wanting to keep the market free from excessive charging of its services. At 12:49 a.m. Eastern Standard Time (EST) on April 20, one week before the jamming, MacDougall transmitted a color bar test pattern that was superimposed on HBO’s signal for a brief period. HBO did not investigate this incident, as it had occurred during the overnight hours, and as a result, very few people had been watching at the time.

On April 26, 1986, MacDougall worked at his shop as normal, and closed at 4:00 p.m. EST. After eating dinner, he reported to Central Florida Teleport with one other engineer on duty. The second engineer left at 6:00 p.m., leaving MacDougall to operate the building on his own. MacDougall oversaw the uplink of the movie Pee-wee’s Big Adventure as part of the evening’s programming for the pay-per-view network People’s Choice, which used Central Florida Teleport’s facilities. After the film ended, he went through his regular routine. Before logging off, MacDougall set up SMPTE color bars and used a Quanta Corporation Microgen MG-100 character generator that placed letters on the television screen. He spent a couple of minutes composing his message. MacDougall began his message with a polite greeting as he did not wish to be insulting. He selected the name “Captain Midnight” from a film he had recently seen, On the Air Live with Captain Midnight.

Described by The A.V. Club as “a Reagan-era Robin Hood,” MacDougall swung the 30-foot (9.1 m) transmission dish back into its storage position, which aimed it at the location of Galaxy 1, the satellite that carried HBO. Locating the satellite coordinates was not of great difficulty for MacDougall as frequencies were widely published in manuals and enthusiast magazines. As a protest against the introduction of high fees and scrambling equipment, MacDougall transmitted a signal onto the satellite that for four and a half minutes overrode HBO’s telecast of the 1985 film The Falcon and the Snowman, which had begun two minutes earlier. The five-line text message printed in white capital letters that appeared on the screens of HBO subscribers across the eastern half of the US (accounting for more than half of HBO’s 14.6 million subscribers at the time), starting at 12:32 a.m. on April 27.

Hughes Communications, owner of the Galaxy 1 satellite, immediately noticed the jamming and threatened to shut down HBO’s satellite signal or alter the satellite’s course, with executives believing the hacker was a domestic terrorist. HBO’s technician, working at the company’s communication center in Hauppauge, Long Island, New York, telephoned Hughes Communications, but officials there could not offer an explanation to the jamming. The HBO technician attempted to regain control by increasing the uplink transmission power from 125 watts to 2,000 watts. This was unsuccessful, as MacDougall increased his power in a control battle that lasted about 90 seconds, during which it was feared that a further power increase would damage the satellite. MacDougall became scared, abandoned his control of the satellite, and went home. He felt guilty about his actions the following day, but hoped the jamming would not be noticed by anyone not working for HBO.  MacDougall was later surprised to see his actions being reported on network television. Thus, when he returned to work that night he pretended to have no knowledge about the intrusion, and asked questions about what had happened.

Galaxy 1 carried HBO on transponder 23 at a rate of 125 watts, with relay signals sent out at 6,385 MHz. Mother Jones magazine determined that MacDougall could have potentially taken over the signals of three additional satellites. He could have taken control of the network feed of CBS had he positioned his satellite dish at the Telstar 301 satellite, operated by AT&T, tuned at 6,065 MHz. He also could have taken over the foreign language feed of the Voice of America network by aiming his satellite dish at 72 degrees west longitude. The final theorized hijacking would have been aiming his satellite dish at 100 degrees west longitude, above the Galápagos Islands, with a frequency setting of 293.375 MHz, thereby jamming the signal of United States Navy satellite Fleetsatcom 1. The magazine also posted that an amateur hobbyist could hijack the satellites that alerted US military forces to Soviet actions, creating confusion for world leaders and placing the world at risk of nuclear destruction.

Although the intrusion caused minor annoyance to viewers, HBO contacted the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and announced that the hijacker would face prosecution. The commission’s chief, Richard Smith, assembled staff in his office for an emergency meeting at the FCC headquarters eight hours after the intrusion to discuss how the culprit should be caught. On April 28, the chairman of HBO, Michael J. Fuchs, wrote to the FCC saying the company had received calls threatening to place Galaxy 1 into a different orbit, but the company was unable to determine whether these were credible threats or not. Fuchs’s letter additionally urged the commission to use all of its resources to capture the culprit. In the days after the jamming, more than 200 people called the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to “confess” that they were Captain Midnight.

The Department of Justice made indications of its desire to get involved, and the FBI was called in to assist the investigation. One hundred FCC field offices and monitoring stations across the US were actively involved in the investigation, with no fewer than six FCC employees working on the case. Oliver Long, the head engineer of the FCC’s Texas field office, oversaw the investigation, and the commission assigned agent George Dillon to the case. The case first led investigators from the FCC to focus on the Dallas–Fort Worth metroplex, after an anonymous tip accused an amateur radio operator residing in Lewisville, Texas, of being the culprit.

Later, the FCC determined which teleport uplink sites out of the 2,000 licensed transmitters in the US had the capability to override the HBO signal. That narrowed it down to 580 uplink sites that had sufficiently large antennas that had the capability of broadcasting the signal. The manufacturer that produced the character generator graphics model used to generate the typeface on the television screen was also identified after studying footage of the jamming. Investigators from the commission obtained copies from an FCC engineer and HBO viewers, as tape machines were not running during the jamming. The FCC removed stations from the list of 500 that were inoperative on April 27 or transmitting other material. This method brought the number of potential stations down to twelve. After FCC investigators visited these stations, there were now three prime suspects which included MacDougall. The commission later learned an accountant from Wisconsin had overheard MacDougall bragging about the jamming at a payphone in a rest area off Interstate 75 in Gainesville, Florida.

Prior to the jamming, the FCC warned that anyone interfering with television signals would be harshly dealt with, and MacDougall was charged after surrendering to the authorities following media and industry pressure. Investigators from the commission spoke to MacDougall in July, asking him questions that led him to believe that the commission was aware of the incident. Two FCC agents visited MacDougall’s house two weeks later along with US Attorney Lawrence Gentile III, who served MacDougall with a subpoena to appear in Jacksonville’s US District Court. In their meeting, MacDougall claimed not to have committed any crime. According to MacDougall, Gentile tried to make an agreement that if MacDougall discussed the incident, Gentile would be willing to recommend a small fine and probation to the judge. At that time, MacDougall stated that he started to feel that there was not enough evidence to convict him, and despite continuing to protest his innocence, MacDougall told Gentile he would attend court.

MacDougall contacted attorney John Green Jr., who advised him the chances of him winning the case were 70 percent and that a trial would be risky and costly. He faced being fined up to $100,000 and being sentenced to one year in prison if he was convicted. Furthermore, MacDougall was worried about going before the jury and lying to get himself acquitted. He thus changed his mind and agreed to cooperate fully with the FCC. At his first hearing on the afternoon of July 22, he pleaded guilty to the charge of “illegally operating a satellite uplink transmitter,” a violation of 47 U.S.C. § 301. Under an agreement with Gentile, MacDougall plea bargained and received a $5,000 fine, was put on unsupervised probation for one year, and had his amateur radio license suspended for one year. Later, he was arraigned and freed on a $5,000 bond. MacDougall’s plea bargain was confirmed at his sentencing by Judge Howard T. Snyder on August 26. Lawyers for Hughes Communications subsequently reviewed the option of taking MacDougall to civil court, but chose not to take any further action.

MacDougall was approached for interviews by major US news stations after his arraignment, but Gentile advised him to not appear on television until his sentencing. MacDougall held a news conference in which he stated he did not contest the rights of cable companies to scramble their programs, but asked the government to allow the marketplace and not corporations to set prices. He revealed he was aware of a year-old magazine that spoke about the type of signal interference he caused, but affirmed the article was not influential on his actions.

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